Thursday, March 28, 2019

The Tale Of Breeches-Aud

The story of Breeches-Aud is one of the more memorable tales in the Icelandic Laxdæla saga, a 13th-century book filled with strong female characters that were loosely inspired by women said to have lived in the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries. Although the exploits of many people described in the sagas were embellished or even invented, the core details (genealogy, settlement locations, poetic evidence etc.) were deemed to have enough truth that later Medieval Icelanders, such as the chieftain Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), proudly and confidently traced their ancestry back to characters in the sagas. Whether or not the sagas were histories with creative license, historical fictions or pure folklore, they were feats of impressive storytelling and, as Icelandic stories go, the tale of Breeches-Aud was one of the more unique narratives.

According to the Laxdæla saga, Aud lived with her husband, Thord Ingunnarson, on a farmstead called Hol in 10th-century Iceland. Aud eventually became a bold woman of action, but in her first scene in the saga she is portrayed in an extremely downgrading light. Poor Aud was horribly described as “a woman who was neither good-looking nor exceptional in other ways, and Thord had little affection for her” (Laxdæla saga, chapter 32). Her husband, the prominent lawyer, Thord Ingunnarson, received much better treatment in his introduction: “Thord was a fine, strapping figure of a man, highly capable, and often involved in lawsuits” (Laxdæla saga, chapter 32).

Thord Ingunnarson’s law work brought him into contact with one of the central figures of the Laxdæla saga—Gudrun Osvifsdottir. Her father had forced her to marry a man named Thorvald Halldorsson when she was only fifteen years old. After two unhappy years of marriage, Gudrun decided to divorce her husband following an incident where Thorvald slapped her across the face. Before she had made her decision to separate from Thorvald, Gudrun had befriended Thord Ingunnarson, and now, she used his knowledge of Icelandic law to help her case. With her friend’s help, Gudrun successfully divorced Thorvald Halldorsson, and she even received half of his property when they split up.

Thord Ingunnarson remained friendly with Gudrun after her divorce, but he wanted to be more than friends. He was unhappy with his current wife, Aud, and quickly fell for the young Gudrun, who was described as “the most beautiful woman ever to have grown up in Iceland, and no less clever than she was good-looking” (Laxdæla saga, chapter 32). Gudrun apparently returned his affection and helped Thord search for a way to extricate himself from his unfulfilling marriage.

According to the Laxdæla saga, Thord and Gudrun were traveling to the Althing, Iceland’s national assembly, when the pair decided on what tactic to use against Thord’s wife. Gudrun claimed that if Aud was accused of cross-dressing like a man and witnesses were found to support the claim, no one would object to Thord filing for divorce. It was also Gudrun, who supposedly first proposed the catchy nickname, Breeches-Aud. Although Thord Ingunnarson responded to Gudrun’s plan by musing that he had never seen his wife dress like a man and similarly had never heard her be called Breeches-Aud, he decided to go with the ploy, anyway. When Thord reached the Althing, “He named witnesses and announced he was divorcing Aud on the grounds that she had taken to wearing breeches with a codpiece like a masculine woman” (Laxdæla saga, chapter 32). The announcement shocked, surprised and enraged Aud’s brothers, who were in the assembly at the time. It was through these siblings, Thorkel Pup and Knut, that the now infamous Breeches-Aud learned of her divorce. Thord did not immediately go back to Hol, but instead traveled to the estate of Gudrun’s father in Laugar. A posse did arrive, however, to seize some cattle from Aud’s farm in Hol as Thord’s share in the divorce, and, as soon as the animals reached Laugar, Thord and Gudrun became engaged, with their marriage set at the end of the summer.

Although Thord was ready to forget about his former wife, Breeches-Aud and her brothers were in no way willing to forgive and forget Thord. Thorkel Pup and Knut tried to rally their neighbors and relatives to support their mistreated sister, but Gudrun’s plan to assassinate the character of Aud had worked like a charm, and consequently, everyone was hesitant to give public support to Breeches-Aud. With no allies to be found, Thorkel Pup and Knut gave up hope of finding justice in court or battle. Breeches-Aud, however, did not stop her planning.

In the summertime, ewes were brought out to pasture and the inhabitants of the various Icelandic farmsteads that were responsible for the animals would stay in shielings (pasture huts) to keep watch over their respective flocks. The people of Hol pastured their ewes in Hvammsdal and Aud was one of the people staying in a shieling. Thord and Gudrun’s community from Laugar was pasturing its animals in Lambadal, just southwest of Aud’s location. Using farmhands as spies, Aud gathered information about her former husband. The informants reported back that almost everyone from Laugar was in the pasturelands, including Gudrun. Thord Ingunnarson, however, was not with the others. He was believed to be back at Laugar helping Gudrun’s father build a new hall.

Hearing that Thord would only be accompanied by his aging father-in-law during the night, Breeches-Aud decided that now was the time to strike back against her ex-husband. She invited only one other person to join her plot—a loyal shepherd. At the end of the day, after the exhausted herdsmen had gone to sleep, Breeches-Aud made her move. She even dressed for the occasion: “shortly before sundown Aud mounted her horse, dressed in breeches, to be sure” (Laxdæla saga, chapter 35). Armed with a sword and wearing pants “like a masculine woman,” Breeches-Aud and the loyal shepherd rode through the night to Laugur. There, just as Aud’s informants had predicted, Thord Ingunnarson was sleeping alone, with only his father-in-law nearby in another room of the home.

Breeches-Aud left the horses in the care of the shepherd and then crept, with sword brandished, toward the house. The door was not locked and she easily slipped inside the hall. Before long, she found the room where Thord was in a deep sleep. He did not wake up as his scorned ex-wife tiptoed into the room. He did not even awaken when she prodded him, presumably to hear why he had done what he did, or simply to look into his eyes while she attacked. She did not achieve either of those possible goals, for Thord merely rolled over on his left side in response to the poking.

Not wasting any more time, Breeches-Aud raised her sword to mete out vengeance on her ex-husband for his betrayal and the public humiliation that he had made her suffer. Summoning all of her rage, Aud chopped down with everything she had. In its single arc, the sword cut deep into Thord’s right arm and even sliced his pectorals before the blade lodged itself firmly into the wooden bed frame. As Thord howled in pain, Breeches-Aud escaped into the night. Thord was too wounded to chase after her, and by the time his father-in-law rushed into the room, Aud had already disappeared.

Thord Ingunnarson miraculously survived his wounds. His right arm had taken the bulk of the blow, crippling it for the rest of his life, but the cuts on his chest were minor flesh wounds that healed quickly. At first, because of the breeches, Thord thought his assailant was a man. Yet, after thinking it over, he came to suspect it was Aud. In an interesting ending to the story, Thord sympathized with his ex-wife and, although he was an accomplished lawyer, he decided not to press charges. When explaining his reasoning to his father-in-law, Thord simply said, “what Aud had done was only evening the score” (Laxdæla saga, chapter 35).

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Image of the Valkyrie, Brunnhild, painted by Arthur Rackham (1867–1939), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Saga of the People of Laxardal and Bolli Bollason’s Tale, by an anonymous 13th-century Icelander and translated by Keneva Kunz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Lifelong Payments Of Tribute By King Æthelred The Unready To The Danes

Æthelred the Unready became king of England in 978, following the assassination of his brother, King Edward the Martyr. Æthelred was reportedly only ten years old when he ascended to the throne, and his epithet, Unready (Unraed), actually meant “bad counsel,” as the young king’s regent, advisors and vassals gave him little sound support during his life. Yet, the modern definition of unready also fits King Æthelred, for when a relentless wave of Viking activity began plaguing England in 980, the king and the kingdom were caught totally unprepared.

King Æthelred and his poor advisors may have tried to imitate the success of their famed ancestor, King Alfred the Great (r. 871-899). Alfred had paid the Vikings for peace in his first year as king, but it was only a temporary truce and the Vikings came back to force Alfred into the marshes of Somerset by 978. Yet, Alfred mobilized his forces, wrested back control of Wessex, and, by the end of his reign had implemented a network of military garrisons in the burghs of his kingdom that were strong enough to defeat Viking raiders even when Alfred was not present on the battlefield. The success of Alfred’s defense system was showcased in the Battle of Lea (c. 895), where Anglo-Saxon garrisons worked together to defeat a Viking encampment while Alfred was elsewhere in the kingdom building river defenses. Around a century later, Æthelred the Unready apparently attempted a similar scheme of paying the invaders to buy time and letting his regional garrisons deal with the Viking problem. Unfortunately, the burghs of Æthelred’s day no longer had the individual power to effectively fight off the Vikings, and, unlike Alfred the Great, Æthelred seemed totally incapable of adapting to the new situation. Consequently, while Alfred is remembered as one of Britain’s greatest kings, Æthelred is regarded as one of its worst.

In 991, after over a decade of Viking activity, King Æthelred took one of his first executive actions against the Viking threat. To set the scene, a powerful Viking force had just sacked the city of Ipswich and killed the regional noble, Aldorman Brihtnoth, in a battle at Maldon. One of the leaders of the Viking force was apparently Olaf Tryggvason, who would go on to become the king of Norway in 995. Instead of mustering his forces against this Viking threat, King Ætheltred instead pulled together England’s finances and paid off the invaders with a tribute of 10,000 Anglo-Saxon pounds. Æthelred did, however, later make an effort to gather together a fleet of ships in 992, but the man he put in charge of the armada unfortunately defected to the side of the Vikings.

The tribute payment (and the poorly-led fleet) did not bring Æthelred peace, as Vikings continued to wreak havoc on England in 992 and 993. By 994, Olaf Tryggvason had returned, this time with King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark. With a large fleet at their disposal, Olaf and Sweyn raided all over England, attacking Essex, Kent, Sussex and Hampshire. Once again, Æthelred apparently left the defense of the kingdom to his regional nobles, and no known military action was taken by the king, himself. As the Vikings continued to sow destruction, Æthelred decided to offer a second payment of tribute—this time reportedly around 16,000 Anglo-Saxon pounds. The wealth did buy off Olaf Tryggvason, who went to Norway to seize the throne and never returned to Britain. Yet, the money did not stop other Vikings from raiding English soil.

After a brief period of peace, Vikings returned to cause mayhem in Æthelred’s kingdom. Widespread annual raids resumed in 997. By 999, Æthelred finally decided to raise his land and sea power against the invaders, but by this point, the kingdom’s military was in a neglected and pitiful state. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle did not pull any punches when assessing Æthelred’s attempt to take a more personal control over the kingdom’s defense in 999: “in the end neither the naval force nor the land force was productive of anything but the people’s distress, and a waste of money, and the emboldening of their foes” (ASC, 999). By 1002, Æthelred decided to pay a third tribute to the Vikings, giving them a reported 24,000 pounds. Yet, that very year, the Anglo-Saxons idiotically massacred Danish settlers in England, ensuring further confrontation with King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark.

As could be expected, when King Sweyn heard that his countrymen had been ruthlessly purged in England, he set sail for Britain and embarked on a relentless war against Æthelred as early as 1003. By this point, King Æthelred decided to let his regional nobles once again the take lead in the war. Sweyn Forkbeard apparently faced only regional garrisons until 1006, when Æthelred decided to muster another army. Yet, as before, Æthelred’s military was still in poor shape and was woefully inadequate to halt Sweyn Forkbeard’s campaign. As the Danes plundered region after region, Æthelred the Unready pulled together a fourth tribute payment of 36,000 pounds.

King Sweyn accepted the payment and England was at relative peace for several years. In that brief respite, Æthelred tried to build up England’s navy, but his progress was undermined by unruly noblemen, such as Brihtric and Wulfnoth Cild, who reportedly put around 100 of Æthelred’s new ships out of action during a personal feud. Ironically, it was right after the Englishmen destroyed their own ships that Sweyn Forkbeard returned to England in 1009. From 1009-1012, King Sweyn’s forces acted as an unstoppable steamroller, flattening all resistance in their path. King Æthelred’s distress can be glimpsed at the enormous tribute—the largest of his reign—that he sent to the Danes. In 1012, Æthelred sent as his fifth tribute a whopping 48,000 Anglo-Saxon pounds. This time, however, Sweyn Forkbeard showed no mercy and continued his campaign despite the money. In 1013, King Sweyn conquered England and Æthelred fled to Normandy.

Sweyn Forkbeard, however, did not have a long reign as the king of England—he died in 1014. Sweyn’s son and heir, Canute, was reportedly in the north of England at the time and eager to return to Denmark to secure his hold on the Danish homeland. In the uncertainty of succession, the people of England invited Æthelred to return to Britain to retake the throne, an offer he gladly accepted. When Æthelred returned to England in 1014, he continued his life-long foreign policy of paying tribute. In an effort to appease King Canute, Æthelred sent a payment of 21,000 pounds to the Danes. It would be his sixth and final tribute. Nevertheless, Canute returned to England in 1015, determined to retake the English throne. Æthelred died in London in 1016, shortly before King Canute’s fleet arrived to besiege the city. In all, Æthelred’s six tribute payments to the Vikings totaled around 155,000 Anglo-Saxon pounds. In his book, The Pound: A Biography, author David Sinclair estimated that a single Anglo-Saxon pound from the day of Æthelred the Unready could purchase 15 cows. If that calculation is correct, then the Vikings would have been able to purchase a massive cattle herd numbering 2,325,000 animals with all of the money given to them by Æthelred the Unready.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Miniature of Æthelred the Unready from MS Royal 14 B VI, placed in front of a image of bags of money from, both [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by Benjamin Thorpe in 1861 and republished by Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources translated, introduced and denoted by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge. New York: Penguin Classics, 2004. 

Monday, March 18, 2019

10 More Fun Viking-Age Names And The Stories Of The People They Belonged To

The heyday of the Viking age occurred between the eighth and eleventh centuries. Yet, some Scandinavian noblemen continued to embark on Viking-like activities well into the twelfth century. Jarl Rognvald Kali of Orkney (r. 1137-1158) was one such nobleman and he ironically was said to have gone raiding in the Mediterranean while on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The Viking Age is a well-documented period, with sources from multiple sides and viewpoints. Viking Age kings wrote about their accomplishments on stone monuments, and historians such as the Icelandic Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241) and the Danish Saxo Grammaticus (c. 12th-13th century) later narrated events from the perspective of Norway and Denmark. There are also substantial sources from the regions attacked by Vikings, such as chroniclers based in the British Isles and France. With such a wealth of information, much is known about the key figures from the Viking Age and their exploits during that chaotic time. Yet, Viking Age Scandinavians did not excel at only daring raids and bold seamanship—they also had some of the most creative names in all of Europe. We previously published an article listing ten fun and unique names from the Viking Age (check it out HERE), yet that was barely scratching the surface. Here are ten more fun names and a brief summary of their lives in the Viking Age.

1) Einar Buttered-Bread: This curious character reportedly lived in the 10th century and is mentioned in the Orkneyinga saga. Einar Buttered-Bread was said to have been a well-respected chieftain in Orkney, yet he had a remarkable fall from grace. He eventually assassinated a certain Jarl Havard of Orkney, causing a power-struggle to erupt. According to the saga, Einar Buttered-Bread was killed by another claimant to the jarldom. For a more in-depth look at Einar’s life and the power-struggle in Orkney, read our article HERE.

2) Killer-Hrapp: According to the Laxdæla saga, Hrapp was a 10th-century Hebridean immigrant to Iceland. He set up a farmstead called Hrappsstadir and, when he died, was buried upright under his kitchen. It is unclear when he was given his nickname, Killer-Hrapp, but he lived up to his reputation even after death. The ghost of Killer-Hrapp reportedly haunted Hrappsstadir and the locals were so afraid of his supernatural power that Hrapp’s body was exhumed and reburied in an uninhabited forest. His remains were later discovered under a cowshed belonging to the Hjardarholt farmstead, which was also plagued by hauntings. When the remains were located, Killer-Hrapp’s body was exhumed for a second time and burned. For a detailed account of Killer-Hrapp’s hauntings, check out our article, HERE.

3) Olaf Peacock: Olaf Hoskuldsson Peacock owned Hjardarholt and was the man who burned Killer-Hrapp’s body. In the Laxdæla saga, Olaf was described as a wealthy chieftain who sailed to Norway and Ireland. Wherever he went, Olaf seemed to obtain items of great wealth and value (read about his gilded belongings, HERE). Such lavish possessions, as well as his prideful preening, were reportedly the inspiration behind his nickname, Peacock. His life is dated to around 938-1006.

4) Sweyn the Sacrificer: Also known as Sacrifice-Sweyn or Blot-Sweyn, he was an 11th-century Swede who resisted King Inge the Elder’s attempts to enforce Christianity in Sweden. He was apparently given his nickname, “the sacrificer,” because of his outspoken support for the traditional pagan sacrifices of the Norse religion. Sweyn the Sacrificer made appearances in sources such as the Heimskringla of Snorri Sturluson and the Orkneyinga saga. He reportedly put up a good fight against King Inge of Sweden, but Sweyn was ultimately assassinated.

5) Hallbjorn Slickstone-eye: Hallbjorn was a Hebridean who immigrated to Iceland in the 10th century with his parents and brother. According to the Laxdæla saga, his family settled in Skalmarfjord but were unwelcome and faced discrimination by the locals. Accused of theft and sorcery, Hallbjorn’s family fled to Kambsnes, Iceland. Yet, when a young boy died unexpectedly in the region, Hallbjorn’s family was accused of killing the child with witchcraft. In the ensuing witch-hunt, Hallbjorn Slickstone-eye’s entire family was subsequently hunted down and murdered. For a more lengthy account of this tragic story, read our article, HERE.

6) Svein Breast-Rope: According to the Orkneyinga saga, Svein Breast-Rope was a follower of Jarl Paul the Silent of Orkney (d. 1137). Svein had a rude and argumentative reputation and was not a popular man. He apparently became more competitive, jealous and belligerent as he drank. As could be expected, Svein Breast-Rope was eventually killed in a drunken brawl. Sadly, no one mourned his death—not even the local bishop.

7) Harald Graycloak: Harald Graycloak, also known as King Harald II, became the ruler of Norway in 961, following the death of his uncle, King Hákon the Good. Harald’s memorable name reportedly originated from a lordly gray sheepskin cloak that he often wore (check out our article on this cloak, HERE). Both Harald and his late uncle, Hákon, were reportedly Christian, but whereas Hákon took a minimalist approach to religion, Harald put more effort into converting Norway. His attempts to convert the population (as well as assassinations of prominent pagan chieftains) led to massive revolts against his rule. Harald Graycloak was eventually killed around 970 while in Denmark. After Harald’s death, the pagan Jarl Hákon Sigurdsson dominated Norway until 995.

8) Thord Dragon-Jaw: Thord appeared in a section of the Orkneyinga saga that described postmortem miracles attributed to Saint Magnus (d. 1117).  A hard-working but irreligious man, Thord Dragon-Jaw made the fateful decision to thresh barley late into the night on the eve of St. Magnus’ Mass. According to the story, the spirit of St. Magnus did not approve of Thord's conduct and struck the man with a good dose of holy insanity. For over six days, Thord Dragon-Jaw was consumed with madness. His condition was said to have only improved after a vigil was held and money was donated to the shrine of St. Magnus on Thord’s behalf. For more information on St. Magnus and his supernatural exploits, read our article, HERE.

9) Harald Smooth-Tongue: Harald Smooth-Tongue was a 12th-century jarl of Orkney. He shared power with his brother, Jarl Paul the Silent. He died a mysterious death and many believed foul play was involved. The Orkneyinga saga claimed that Harald Smooth-Tongue put on a poisoned garment and died in agony from whatever had been applied to the cloth.

10) An Twig-belly: According to the Laxdæla saga, a man named An the Black lived in Iceland around the turn of the 11th century. He was a devoted companion of Olaf Peacock’s sons and apparently had a gift for foreseeing trouble. In 1003, during a tense Icelandic feud, An the Black reportedly had a nightmare in which someone had gutted him and replaced his entrails with twigs. When he told his friends about the dream, they laughed it off and jovially threatened to give him a nickname based on the nightmare. Yet, people looked on the nightmare differently when An the Black and his friend, Kjartan Olafsson, were soon after ambushed on the road. Kjartan was killed and An was virtually disemboweled during the fight. Although Kjartan died, An miraculously recovered from his wounds. From then on, he was said to have been called An Twig-belly. He reportedly was killed in 1007, while trying to avenge Kjartan’s death.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Depiction of Norse explorers from a book by Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1836-1907), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.
  • Orkneyinga Saga, written anonymously approximately c. 1200, translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. New York: Penguin Classics, 1981. 
  • Laxdæla saga by an unknown 13th century Icelander, translated by Keneva Kunz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.  

Thursday, March 14, 2019

The Disturbing Myth Of The Horatii And The Curiatii

According to tradition, the kingdom of Rome began in the mid 8th century BCE. Despite its centuries of existence, Greek scholars did not start taking serious interest in Rome until the 4th and especially the 3rd century BCE, by which time Rome had become the undisputed dominant power in Italy and began clashing with its Mediterranean rival, Carthage. The Romans, themselves, apparently never produced a historian until around 200 BCE, around which time Senator Quintus Fabius Pictor began writing the first official native Roman historical works. Unfortunately, by the time Pictor began writing, much of Rome’s written records were likely destroyed in the Gallic sack of Rome in the early 4th century BCE, and the surviving oral history about Rome’s founding would have been incredibly corrupted after untold generations of retellings. Therefore, when a Roman scholar such as Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE) set out to tell the story of the founding of Rome, he had to work with dubious documentation, such as historic names without historical context, and folkloric tales that were often adapted to the structure of preexistent stories of Greek mythology.

The tragic and disturbing tale of the Horatii and the Curiatii is one of the myths that Rome created as an explanation as to how Rome expanded its influence over the nearby community of Alba Longa. Historically, Alba Longa is believed to have been in existence well before 1,000 BCE and was a powerful city in Italy until the 7th century BCE, when it was presumably challenged by Rome and ultimately destroyed around 600 BCE. While we will never know specific details of the conflict between Rome and Alba Longa, writers such as Livy preserved the conflict, albeit in a dramatic and embellished fashion, within their works on the folklore of early Rome.

In his History of Rome, Livy alleged that the war between Rome and Alba Longa began because of a cattle dispute. As the story goes, both cities were stealing the livestock of the other and neither side wanted to return the stolen property. War was eventually declared to settle the issue, but before battle commenced, the leaders of the cities agreed to an odd solution—the war would be settled with a duel between chosen champions of each city. Oddly enough, both Rome and Alba Longa chose as their champions trios of triplet brothers—the Horatiii and the Curiatii. According to Livy, there was some debate as to which set of brother belonged to which city, but most accounts of the tale placed the Horatii in the Roman camp.

The match-up between the Horatii and the Curiatii was unfortunate, for the Roman triplets were all set to be brothers-in-law of one of the Alban triplets, as a sister of the Roman Horatii had been recently engaged to marry one of the Curiatii brothers. Nevertheless, one of the themes of Livy’s tale was that the city is more important than love and family, so, naturally, the Horatii and Curiatii all agreed to fight to the death on behalf of their homelands. The soon-to-be-married brother from Alba Longa, however, did not shed all his emotion—when he arrived for the duel, he was proudly wearing a cloak that had been lovingly made for him by his betrothed. The six warriors entered a list, or arena, set up by the two armies, and the duel began to the sounds of trumpets and cheers.

Livy painted the scene of the duel with great attention to drama. To the horror of the Romans, their Horatii triplets fought terribly. The Roman brothers fell in quick succession until only one, Publius Horatius, was left alone to face all three Curiatii siblings. Staring down the three warriors, Horatius could think of only one strategy—to run. The Romans looked on with dismay as the three Alban warriors chased the lone champion from Rome around the arena. Yet, Horatius was sprinting around the battlefield for a reason. As the Alban champions were chasing their prey, they fell into a single-file line. Seeing an opportunity, Horatius suddenly stopped and began his attack. Using good footwork and well-placed blows, the lone Roman sliced through his three pursuers, dropping one after the other as they raced toward him individually. The Romans cheered as Horatius killed the first Curiatii and then the second. For his final opponent, Publius Horatius faced the man who would have been his brother-in-law if war had been avoided. Showing no mercy, the Roman killed his foe and even looted from his body the cloak that was handmade by Horatius’ sister.

With the duel over, the Albans were said to have made momentary peace with Rome. Noncombatants waiting with anticipation in Rome for news of the duel could see the Roman army celebrating on the road as it returned home. At the forefront of the Roman troops was Publius Horatius, proudly wearing the plundered bloodstained cloak that had been made by his sister. While the population of Rome cheered for the army’s valiant return, one woman at the Capena gate could only cry.

According to Livy, the betrothal between Horatius’ sister and the slain Curiatii warrior was not a coldly arranged marriage for politics or wealth, but actually a union of genuine love and affection. Therefore, when the sister saw her brother wearing the bloodied cloak that she had given to her beloved, she could not suppress her grief and bawled for all of Rome to hear. Publius Horatius, enjoying all of the cheers and praise, soon heard someone killing the triumphal mood with wails and sobs. The sound of someone not appreciating his victory annoyed him and his anger did not abate even after discovering it was his own sister who was crying.

At this point, the tale takes an incredibly dark turn. Instead of consoling his distraught sister, Horatius did the unthinkable. He grabbed a sword, angrily marched over to his sobbing sibling and plunged the blade deep into her chest, piercing her heart. As she bled to death, Horatius growled abuse over his sister’s body: “’Take your girl’s love,’ he shouted, ‘and give it to your lover in hell. What is Rome to such as you, or your brothers, living or dead? So perish all Roman women who mourn for an enemy!’” (History of Rome, Book I, section 26).

To Rome’s credit, the myth states that the Romans immediately arrested Horatius and put him on trial for murder. Yet, the murdered sister was not given justice by the court. The Roman populace cried out for Horatius to be spared, and even the father of the Horatii (who had lost two sons and one daughter that day) spoke in defense of his son. The only way for the father to save his last living child was to besmear the memory of his own daughter. Livy wrote, “In the course of the hearing the decisive factor was the statement of Horatius’ father, to the effect that his daughter deserved her death” (History of Rome, Book I, section 26). With such pleas on his behalf, Horatius was said to have been acquitted with almost no punishment. Livy traced the origin of a mysterious wooden gateway, the Tigillum Sororium (Sister’s Beam), to this myth. He alleged that members of Horatius’ family had to regularly pass under the Sister’s Beam gate as a sort of penance for the murder.

Ironically, the Curiatii triplets, the two Horatii brothers and their tragically slain sister all died for nothing. According to the tale, the Albans resumed their hostilities against Rome after the duel. In response, Rome once again went to war and this time destroyed the city of Alba Longa. In the end, their deaths only served to convey the theme that the city of Rome was more important than individual Romans, the bonds of family and the cherished emotion of love.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Painting depicting the myth of the Horatii and the Curiatii, by Giuseppe Cesari (1568–1640), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


Thursday, March 7, 2019

The Tale of Gonzalo Guerrero, The Conquistador Adopted Into Mayan Society

In March 1517, the expedition of Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba reached the native Yucatan town of Campeche. What happened there was a surreal experience for the Spaniards—only days earlier the conquistadors had suffered thirteen casualties from an ambush, yet at Campeche, the natives peacefully invited the Spaniards to take a tour of the town. Bernal Díaz del Castillo was one of approximately one hundred explorers who walked into the town that day, and he would later write about his experiences in his text, The Conquest of New Spain. According to his account, the priestly leaders of Campeche set up large pyres and then explained through gestures that the Spaniards had safe passage in town until the fires burned out. With the pyres lit, the Conquistadors spent some time admiring the local fashion, architecture and culture before hurrying out of the town as soon as the fires began to die down. After they left, the conquistadors reflected on their experiences in the town and many of them thought they heard the natives use several Spanish words and labels. Bernal Díaz, himself, remembered the locals of Campeche asking if he was “Castilan,” which he thought was a reference to the Spanish region of Castile or the former Castilian kingdom in Spain (The Conquest of New Spain, chapter 3). The possible use of the Spanish language by the locals in Campeche was odd, as the expedition of 1517 was the first official Spanish incursion into the Yucatan Peninsula.

In 1519, Hernán Cortés became the leader of a new expedition with eleven ships and over 500 conquistadors. By then, the Spaniards had formulated some theories as to how fragments of the Spanish language had disseminated through the Yucatan. Bernal Díaz del Castillo was once again present on the voyage and he later recorded the thoughts of the Conquistadors. Hernán Cortés was apparently convinced that there were Spaniard captives in the Yucatan Peninsula from whom the natives were learning some Spanish words. It was not a far-fetched assumption—Bernal Díaz had personally seen two of his comrades be captured alive by natives during the earlier expedition of 1517.

The theory of Spanish captives was still on Cortés’ mind when he reached the island of Cozumel, located near the northeastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. By that time, the Conquistadors had hired translators, and Cortés specifically tasked his translator to ask the natives of Cozumel about the existence of any Spaniards living in the Yucatan. The population of Cozumel, reportedly an important religious and commercial hub, indeed did know of some captives on the mainland. When he learned of this, Cortés hired some locals and sent them on a mission to the peninsula with beads and other trinkets with which to ransom the captive Spaniards.

After around twelve days had passed, a large canoe appeared at Cozumel. Seven people disembarked from the canoe, and the Conquistadors, after some double-takes and closer inspections, realized that one of the seven new arrivals was Spanish. Bernal Díaz described the man’s state: “He wore a very ragged old cloak, and a tattered loincloth to cover his private parts; and in his cloak was tied an object which proved to be a very old prayer-book” (The Conquest of New Spain, chapter 29). Upon reaching the Conquistadors, the man loudly exclaimed in Spanish a prayer to God and “the blessed Mary of Seville,” which convinced Cortés and the explorers that the man was truly a Spaniard.

After giving the man new clothes, Hernán Cortés debriefed him for information. The man claimed that he was a priest named Jeronimo de Aguilar and that, in 1511, his ship had run aground on a sandbar or shallow water somewhere between the colony of Darién, Panama, and Hispaniola. Aguilar stated that he and seventeen other people on the shipwrecked vessel loaded themselves into a rowboat and attempted to paddle to Cuba or Jamaica. Yet, storms and strong currents forced the small boat to a Yucatan beach, where a local Mayan chieftain captured the stranded Spaniards. Most of the captives reportedly suffered horrible fates. Some were said to have been killed in ritual sacrifice, and others were worked to death as laborers. Yet, Aguilar and other survivors eventually escaped and found shelter in more lenient Mayan communities.

By 1519, only two of the original eighteen captives were still alive—Jeronimo de Aguilar and another man by the name of Gonzalo Guerrero. The two apparently kept in close contact, for when Hernán Cortés’ ransom payment was brought to the Mayan town where Aguilar was staying, the now-free priest decided to personally bring the rest of the ransom to where Gonzalo Guerrero was living. Interestingly, Guerrero reportedly refused to accept the ransom and decided to stay behind in the Yucatan Peninsula with his adopted community. Therefore, when Jeronimo de Aguilar arrived in Cozumel to meet Hernán Cortes, he arrived alone.

Unfortunately, no written autobiography of Gonzalo Guerrero was ever found, and even Jeronimo de Aguilar never took the time to write down his own life story. Therefore, the account of Aguilar’s debriefing as recorded by Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who would have met the newly freed Aguilar in person on the island of Cozumel, may be the closest thing to a first-hand account of Guerrero’s supposed life among the Maya.

Bernal Díaz recorded what Aguilar reported about the other surviving captive: “When questioned about Gonzalo Guerrero, he said that he was married and had three children, that he was tattooed, and that his ears and lower lip were pierced, that he was a seaman and a native of Palos, and that the Indians considered him very brave” (The Conquest of New Spain, chapter 29). Aguilar elaborated that Guerrero’s wife was the daughter of a prominent native and that Guerrero’s tattoos and piercings were done as an act of assimilation. In addition, Gonzalo Guerrero reportedly had started teaching his adopted town new tactics and strategies for warfare, eventually going as far as acting as a general for his community in military campaigns. Aguilar claimed that Guerrero had personally told him, “they look on me as a Cacique [military chief] here, and a captain in time of war” (The Conquest of New Spain, chapter 27). Whether or not the debriefing was accurate, the Spanish perception of Gonzalo Guerrero was formulated solely from Jeronimo de Aguilar’s testimony—no other Spaniards spoke to Guerrero while he was alive.

The legend of Gonzalo Guerrero skyrocketed in 1526 or 1527, when two Spanish leaders, both named Francisco de Montejo (senior and junior), began a campaign of conquest against the Yucatan Peninsula. The Spaniards were shocked to find that the Mayans were mounting a stout and powerful resistance. Instead of a quick conquest, the campaign against the Yucatan Peninsula would last for around two frustrating decades.

Many Spaniards could not reconcile the stark difference between the speedy collapse of the Aztecs in Mexico versus the dogged resistance of the Mayan communities in the Yucatan. Unable to bring themselves to attribute the strength of the native Yucatan war effort to anything homegrown, a great deal of Spaniards became convinced that all of their problems in the Yucatan theatre of war stemmed from none other than Gonzalo Guerrero. This belief that Guerrero was a leading figure in the Yucatan resistance became even more solidified in the 1530s, when Conquistadors began making reports of enemy corpses that seemed to have Spanish physiological features. By the time the Spanish conquest of the Yucatan was completed around 1546, Gonzalo Guerrero had become a legend regardless of his role in the native resistance.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Gonzalo Guerrero statue in front of a relief of captives presented to a Maya Ruler; c. A.D. 785; Mexico, Usumacinta River Valley, Maya culture; both [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).